Ducks Aplenty For Lake Charles Hunters

Even when nationwide waterfowl numbers turn dismal, ducks abound in the marshes and rice fields of southwest Louisiana. Making this great thing greater still: plentiful public hunting opportunities. (December 2005)

Photo by Marc Murrell

The numbers don't lie. The January 2004 Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries waterfowl population estimate was 3.4 million ducks. The January 2005 estimate was 2.5 million. The January count came in well below the previous five-year and long-term averages for January (3.9 and 3.1 million).

No doubt about it -- duck numbers are way down. However, southwest Louisiana tends to hold more of the ducks that are in the state -- and that's still a lot of ducks.

"No doubt it's been slower than normal," said Jeff Poe of Big Lake Guide Service in Lake Charles. "It's been tolerable the first split, but the second split has been off a little. It seems like we aren't getting any new ducks during the second split, and the ones that are here are pretty well educated. We've been getting a good shot of ducks early in October. . . . They behave fairly normal during the first split."

The numbers definitely indicate that there are ducks in this part of the state. The January 2005 estimate counted 108,000 mallards, 401,000 gadwalls, 446,000 green-winged teal and 150,000 pintails.

While numbers for all except greenwings were down from the 2004 count, the big-picture look shows that southwest Louisiana held notably more dabblers than southeast Louisiana. The January 2005 estimate showed only 10,000 mallards, 152,000 green-winged teal and 23,000 pintails in southeast Louisiana. Gadwalls came in at 537,000 in the southeastern part of the state.

Totaling all the dabblers, southwest Louisiana held a 516,000-bird advantage over southeast Louisiana, and that should have hunters in the southwestern corner of the state feeling at least a little bit better.

"We've got such good habitat down here," Poe said. "There's thousands of miles of marsh, and we've got numerous rice fields. The birds tend to roost in the marsh during the day and move to the rice fields at night to eat."

Of course, the ducks in southwest Louisiana get the best of both worlds. They can go the rice fields to eat, or they can eat in the marsh. Take your pick -- rice or widgeon grass. It's no wonder more dabbler ducks favor southwest Louisiana.

Dennis Tietje has been hunting ducks in southwest Louisiana long enough to come up with a couple of his own theories regarding why the ducks favor his part of the state.

"I know we've got a lot of good marshy areas down here," said Tietje, "but I think the main draw is all the rice fields we have here. We've got so many people putting in crawfish ponds who turn around and grow rice during the winter. . . . The ducks have a ton of stuff to eat. There are so many ponds here now that southwest Louisiana looks like one giant lake from the air."

Tietje, who typically hunts his own ponds, agreed with Poe that the ducks would feed in the rice fields at night and fly to the marsh during the day.

"Hunters hunting the public marsh around here may not have an outstanding first hour," he said, "but if they'll wait it out, the ducks leaving the rice fields are going to show up sooner or later. At times, the marsh hunters will do as well as, if not better than, the rice field hunters. A good rainy day may keep them in the rice fields all day, but a clear, sunny day will send them straight to the marsh."

Another key to the popularity of southwest Louisiana among the ducks is that birds from both the Central and Mississippi flyways converge in southwestern Louisiana to winter.

Southwest Louisiana is home to some of the best public-land duck hunting to be found anywhere in the United States. Two national wildlife refuges come to mind first -- Lacassine and Sabine. There's plenty of marsh to go around in these federally managed areas, and hunters willing to put in a little work can find themselves having a banner hunt, even during down years.

LACASSINE NWR

The nearly 35,000 acres of mainly freshwater marsh that make up Lacassine NWR are located in Cameron and Evangeline parishes at 209 Nature Road, at the end of Highway 3056, 11 miles southwest of Lake Arthur off state Highway 14. Lacassine is one of the major wintering areas for ducks in the United States. In fact, duck numbers at Lacassine are typically higher than at any other NWR in the nation.

Lacassine actually straddles the border of an area known locally as the rice belt and an area known as the Cheniere Plain. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Bayou Lacassine run through the refuge. The Mermentau River forms the eastern border and the Bell City Drainage Ditch makes up the west border. The southern border consists of Lake Misere, Bayou Misere, Mud Lake and Grand Lake.

Lacassine NWR was created in 1937 as a habitat for wintering waterfowl in the coastal prairie of southwestern Louisiana. The refuge is a mixture of freshwater marshes and scattered uplands. Impounding a 16,000-acre marsh with a low levee created Lacassine Pool, the dominant feature of the refuge.

A federal order prohibits duck hunting on the portion of Lacassine Bayou where it flows through the refuge. However, more than 6,000 acres south of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway are open to duck hunting.

Pintails, blue-winged and green-winged teal, mallards, ring-necked ducks, gadwalls and American widgeon are the most common ducks on the refuge during the winter months. Green-winged teal and pintails have been most populous recently. Recent refuge counts have put the green-winged teal and pintails in the 20,000 range, while mallards have been in the teens.

Hunting success at Lacassine, as on most public lands, requires putting in effort and sacrificing morning sleep to beat the crowds. The law of the land at Lacassine is "first-come, first-served," so being one of the first to launch in the morning ensures the opportunity to hunt the choicest spots on the refuge.

Most hunters head to the 6,000 acres south of the Intracoastal Waterway. However, the open marsh around Streeters Canal between the Mermentau River and Lacassine Bayou also offers some excellent hunting. Several hunters also find an area known as the Duck Pond to their liking.

Hunting at Lacassine is permitted on Wednesday through Sunday of the state duck season (western zone). Hunters may not enter the hunting area earlier than 4:00 a.m., and hunting hours end at noon each day. Hunt

ers may also scout during the hunting season until one hour after sunset, but shotguns must be unloaded and encased or dismantled after shooting hours.

Lacassine regulations allow hunters to leave boats and decoys in the hunting areas, but they must be removed by the last day of each season.

Contact Lacassine NWR headquarters at (337) 774-5923 for a free permit or hunting information, or go online to

http://lacassine.fws.gov.

SABINE NWR

Dale Logan used to make the one-hour trip from his Iowa, Louisiana, home to the Sabine NWR, which is located eight miles south of Hackberry, on a regular basis during duck season.

"I used to get my fair share down there," he said. "Sabine can be awesome, but hunting it correctly is pretty tough. I still wander down there every now and then."

Sabine NWR is located along state Highway 27 -- the Creole Nature Trail All American Road, in Cameron Parish. It occupies the marshes between Calcasieu and Sabine lakes in southwest Louisiana. Like Lacassine NWR, Sabine attracts ducks from the Central and Mississippi flyways.

The mix of open water and marsh offers plenty of opportunities for hunters willing to put in the work. Approximately 34,000 acres of the 124,511-acre refuge are open to public waterfowl hunting.

"It's all just brackish-water marsh hunting," said Logan. "Hunters typically hunt in the grass or with a boat blind on an aluminum boat. Once you leave the canals, you've got to use a trolling motor or a push-pole."

Hunters may not use air-thrust boats, ATVs, personal motorized watercraft, Go-Devil-type or air-cooled motors at Sabine NWR.

Hunting at Sabine is only allowed on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the teal and waterfowl seasons. Hunters can enter the refuge and launch after 3:00 a.m. and must be back at the check station by 12:00 p.m. All boats on trailers must launch from the West Cove Recreation Area boat launches. Hunters may also access Hunt Unit E by driving on Vastar Road.

"We used to kill a lot of gray ducks (gadwalls) at Sabine," said Logan. "Teal are always plentiful, and we get a few widgeon and pintails. If you can find a little pothole off the beaten path, you're liable to find a couple of mallards, but you likely won't kill anything else."

Sabine NWR hunters must remove boats and decoys at the end of each day's hunt. Hunters also have to use native vegetation to make a blind or use a portable blind.

Logan said that hunters who scout Sabine will eventually learn where the major flyways are and what part of the marsh the ducks tend to favor.

"After hunting out there for 10 years, I eventually figured out the areas where the ducks wanted to go and the routes they flew to get there. In all the years I've hunted there, I've always hunted within about a one-square-mile area."

One of the keys to consistently killing ducks at Sabine is hunting areas that allow you to work the ducks no matter what direction the wind is blowing.

"That's why you'll tend to do better hunting the points," said Logan. "You can handle the wind however it blows if you set up on a point. There are actually are few areas out there that I would consider more of a peninsula than a point. I've done really well hunting those areas. Just set up the decoys based on the wind and you can handle anything. Hunters venturing to the potholes need to set up according to the wind."

Logan said that hunters who do their homework and who hunt on Wednesdays could get away from the crowds and have excellent hunts no matter what the count numbers say.

"After the crowds thin out, you get to recognizing other hunters at the ramp," he said. "You learn who they are and where they hunt, and everybody tends to start staying out of the way of each other. There's a lot of area to hunt out there. Make sure to scout while you hunt and pay attention to what the birds are doing and adjust accordingly."

Access Sabine NWR by taking Highway 27. Travel south through the town of Hackberry to the refuge. The refuge headquarters is eight miles south of Hackberry on the east side of Highway 27. For more information, contact the refuge headquarters at (337) 762-3816 or go online to

www.fws.gov/sabine/.

SABINE ISLAND WMA

This wildlife management area south of Toledo Bend may not win any "Top 10" list of places waterfowlers must hunt, but hunters who are willing to put up with fast-moving wood ducks, quick-turning teal and quickly changing water levels can find surprisingly good hunts.

Sabine Island is made up of approximately 8,000 acres of lowlands, broken by hardwood ridges. Several sloughs and bayous cross through a big tupelo swamp, and there are some open areas in the pipeline crossings. Most of the hunting is done by setting up in the pipeline crossings for wood ducks. Hunters can also jump-shoot a few wood ducks by walking slowly along the sloughs.

The two keys to hunting Sabine Island are paying attention to what the water is doing and keeping a map handy. The water levels in Sabine Island are at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico tides and the discharge schedule at the Toledo Bend Dam. The water can go from low to high in a hurry. The opposite is also true, and hunters could get stranded on dry ground.

Sabine Island WMA is in Calcasieu Parish between Vinton and Starks. Take state Highway 109 from Vinton or south from Starks and then take the Nibblets Bluff Park road west from Highway 109. Access is available only by boat.

CAMERON PRAIRIE NWR

Duck hunting at Cameron Prairie isn't for the young-at-heart. It's only for the young . . . and only those youngsters who are selected through a lottery.

Hunters between the ages of 10 and 15 have the opportunity to apply for a one-day hunt in one of the refuge's five blinds. Selected hunters are assigned a fully brushed blind, complete with mallard, pintail and teal decoys. Most hunts are one day per week, but additional days are offered during school holidays.

Cameron Prairie isn't open for general public waterfowl hunting. One adult may hunt with one or two youths during the youth hunts. The youth hunt program is designed to introduce new hunters to waterfowl hunting through an enriching and positive experience.

Cameron Prairie is located 25 miles southeast of Lake Charles off Highway 27. For more information about the youth hunt, call (337) 598-2216 or go online to

www.fws.gov/cameronprairie.

MERMENTAU RIVER

The Mermentau River runs through Jennings down into Grand Lake. Tietje said that it could offer excellent duck hunting at times. "

It's mainly wood ducks with a few mallards and teal," he said. "The swamps are flooded, but the main hunting is on the edges of the river, where hunters build makeshift blinds on the points of the cypress trees."

Southwest Louisiana offers excellent public land duck hunting opportunities for hunters willing to put in a little time and effort. Even though duck numbers are generally down, there are more ducks around Lake Charles than there are anywhere else in the state.

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